In its May 24th, late-night meeting, the Irvine School Board stood firm in its determination to open Portola High School to its first 9th grade class in August, despite soil-gas test findings that showed site-wide contamination from toxic petrochemicals — including benzene, known to cause leukemia and other diseases, and toluene, a neurotoxicant damaging to brain development and the central nervous system.

Test Results

Of the 17 test wells that were ordered by State officials, all 17 showed significant levels of various combinations of so-called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, benzene derivatives, toluene and xylene — petrochemicals often associated with fuels and solvents. There should have been none of these VOCs found on the site. And there should have been testing under the school buildings, which there was not.

The School Board, relying on a presentation by State officials, seemed satisfied that the contamination was at “low levels,” and therefore “safe.” The Board seemed to ignore — and even resent — public testimony from physicians, scientists and experts in carcinogenesis who noted the special susceptibility of children and long-term teachers and other school employees, especially pregnant women, exposed to airborne carcinogens and neurotoxicants. At one point in the meeting, School Board member Sharon Wallin scolded residents, saying she felt personally “hurt” by the public testimony.

Blaming IRWD’s Recycled Water

The Board accepted, without question, its own environmental consultant’s controversial claim that the source of the toxic contamination is Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) recycled water that had been used in agriculture on the 40-acre Portola High School site that was once part of the former El Toro Marine Corps Airbase.

A number of citizens openly scoffed at the notion — unsupported by any evidence — that recycled water used to irrigate crops was the source of the Portola High School toxic contamination. In fact, high State officials had ordered the new soil-gas tests at the Portola High School site, recognizing that IUSD’s earlier characterization of the site as only used for agriculture was wrong, and that the property — at the end of major runways — was likely used for military purposes. These purposes included the possible dumping of vast quantities of fuels and solvents associated with military aircraft maintenance and operations.

One after another, citizens challenged and ridiculed the theory that the source of the contamination was recycled water laced with toxics. Larry Agran, former Irvine Mayor and City Councilman, who has relentlessly questioned the safety of the Portola High School site for years, said, “This toxic recycled water theory has been concocted by IUSD’s environmental consultant — PlaceWorks.” Agran then went on to testify that if this were true, it would be a “bombshell” story of citywide toxic contamination because of Irvine’s heavy reliance on IRWD’s recycled water.

Others followed Agran to the podium, quickly pointing out that if recycled water was implicated in the site-wide toxic contamination found at Portola High School, then the entire City would be contaminated with toxic VOCs, because recycled water is used on public and private land throughout Irvine — in the City’s parks and recreation areas, throughout common areas in residential villages and neighborhoods, along streets and parkways, and on school grounds.

Apparently, IRWD officials had not been contacted by IUSD officials regarding the School District’s claim of contaminated recycled water as the source of the toxic petrochemicals found at Portola High School. When reached, IRWD officials rejected the claim. According to a written statement by IRWD Water Quality Manager Lars Oldewage, “We have rarely detected the various VOCs [benzene, benzene derivatives, toluene, and xylene] in IRWD’s recycled water and never at any significant level.”

Several residents testified in support of the School District, complaining that the added testing at the Portola High School site was costing too much and “taking the money away from students and Irvine families.”

But Ira Lewis, a retired accountant and resident-activist, countered by saying that IUSD and the School Board had “failed to exercise due diligence” by testing for toxic petrochemicals before purchasing the land from residential developer FivePoint Communities. Lewis pointed out that if IUSD had done so, the testing would have been at the expense of the seller — FivePoint Communities — not at the expense of the School District and Irvine taxpayers. More important, he added, the issues of toxic contamination would have been discovered long ago, and the District would likely have looked elsewhere for a more suitable school site.

After the meeting, Dr. Harvey H. Liss, Executive Director of TestForToxics.org, said, “IUSD got it wrong the first time, and now they got it wrong again. This is no way to safeguard Irvine teachers, staff and students.”

Harvey H. Liss

Harvey H. Liss

Harvey H. Liss, a former Irvine Planning Commissioner, holds a Ph.D. in Applied Mechanics and is a California Licensed Civil Engineer. Dr. Liss is a longtime resident of Woodbridge, the iconic Irvine village he helped design in the 1970s. He now reports for ICNV on environmental issues.
Harvey H. Liss